Darren Leno is the founder of the Association of Clandestine radio Enthusiasts, a longtime radio hobbiest, and entrepreneur. A licensed amateur radio operator since the age of twelve, Leno grew to enjoy all aspects of the radio hobby, including shortwave listening. One area of listening particularly caught and held his attention was intercepting illegal and clandestine radio transmissions. “As a young man, before the internet was generally available, and during the height of the cold war rhetoric, listening to radio stations from all over the earth was an exciting way to participate in the wide world of opinion,” said Leno.
From the radio installation in his bedroom, he tuned in mysterious spy stations reading secretive instruction codes to operatives, and radio stations operated by guerilla fighters in faraway lands. Closer to home, he was able to receive unlicensed pirate radio stations. “The pirate stations were the most fun and easiest to hear. Most of them were really having a good time, and it made for interesting listening,” he said.
Leno soon connected with others who enjoyed this niche hobby. He subscribed to a newsletter called FRC-USA, and eventually became the newsletter’s editor. After the FRC-USA publisher had moved overseas and became busy with other pursuits, Leno founded The Association of Clandestine radio Enthusiasts, known as A*C*E, (March 1982) with fellow radio listener Lani Pettit. A*C*E was open to everyone who shared the interest of listening to pirate and clandestine broadcasts, and grew to more than 500 members during his time as publisher.
“Publishing the A*C*E at age 17 taught me a lot about business, customer service, writing, editing, marketing and promotion,” said Leno. “That experience was certainly an important one to me. Some kids would rush home from school to watch TV; I would rush home to try to get the next issue of The Ace into the mail so people wouldn’t complain about it being late.”
The first issues of The ACE were composed on a typewriter, cut and pasted into a layout, and printed by offset methods, usually with a colored cover and white pages inside. Content included reader contributed station logs, news, colorful interviews and commentary. To save money, Leno would collate, staple, address and stamp each newsletter by hand. “This was the day before self-adhesive stamps. After getting an issue in the mail, I could taste the stamp glue for days,” said Leno.
Eventually Leno acquired an Osborne One portable computer to manage the A*C*E mailing list and to typeset the newsletter. With 64 Kilobytes of memory, two 90 kb disk drives and a 300 baud modem. It was a technological marvel that saved him many hours.
Publishing The ACE eventually lead Leno to a position as a feature columnist with national Popular Communications magazine, published by Tom Kneitel. Leno used the platform to share news about North American pirate radio activity, and to gain a wider membership for A*C*E.
Leno eventually sought membership for A*C*E in the prestigious Association of North American Radio Clubs (ANARC), believing it would provide greater visibility and recognition for A*C*E within the radio hobby. Although there was originally some resistance from other members because of its singular focus on illegal/underground broadcasters, Leno and a cadre of supports attended the ANARC convention in Milwaukee and successfully pitched membership for A*C*E.
Leno also contributed a chapter on pirate radio to the book, “Shortwave Listening With the Experts,” published by Gerry Dexter. Leno appeared on Radio Nederland’s DX program hosted by Jeff White, and was occasionally sought out by mainstream media to comment about pirate radio stations. Leno would also swap articles with numerous college publications and “fanzines” to promote the pirate radio listening hobby. For a time, Leno operated a popular modem-based BBS radio forum called “Radio Hobby Online.”
Eventually Leno realized that college was an opportunity and not a lifestyle, and so he applied himself fully to his studies at the University of Minnesota. It was around that time that he sought help carrying the A*C*E torch from a willing Kirk Baxter, who took over A*C*E.
“Kirk and his successors did a magnificent job with A*C*E. The fact that the organization persisted so long, and still persists in spirit, is a real credit to them,” said Leno.
“A*C*E was a fun chapter in my life. The best part was befriending so many interesting people who shared my interest with this niche hobby. I met some wonderful people, who have kept in touch for many years,” he said.
Leno continues to be a licensed ham radio operator (W0KN). He still enjoys listening to foreign and domestic radio transmission of all kinds.
(Baxter(left) Leno(right) in 1983)
Since A*C*E, Leno has served in leadership roles for other organizations in his home town of Moorhead, MN, including as President of Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, Minnesota; President of Churches United for the Homeless where he received a Human Rights Award from the City of Moorhead, and as President of his church.
Leno is currently the President of Encryptomatic LLC, a global software company. He also teaches Internet Marketing classes at Concordia College, where he serves as an Adjunct Professor in the Business School.
Prior to venturing out on his own, Leno was employed at some great companies. His work history includes a stint as Product Manager at Microsoft’s Business Solutions Division; Business Development at Great Plains Software; and Director of Corporation Communications and Public Relations at startup In-Flight Phone Corporation.
Today Leno is married to his wife, Jane. Together they make their home in a rural Minnesota community, where he is father to three terrific children. The family enjoys outdoor activities, including fishing, ice fishing, boating, hunting, snowmobiling, raising a few chickens and making maple syrup. Leno maintains a personal website at www.darrenleno.com, where he invites old friends to get in touch with him.